Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made headlines last week when he warned people fleeing Haiti and Cuba by sea that they will not be allowed to enter the United States. While his remarks attracted attention, stopping boats of migrants is nothing new for the United States. What is new, and concerning, is the Biden administration’s anti-asylum rhetoric. This shift to tough talk echoes progressive political parties around the world.
And, it doesn’t work for them.
Look to Australia, where the Labor Party’s embrace of deterrence rhetoric has not only failed at the ballot box, repeatedly, it has also significantly damaged refugee protection in the region and beyond.
Turning back boats and offshore processing are often referred to as the “Australian Model,” but the policies actually originated in the United States. Since the 1980s, the United States has intercepted migrants attempting to travel to the country by sea, and Guantanamo Bay has been used as an offshore processing center for asylum seekers since 1991, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Australia drew directly on U.S. policy and from U.S. policymakers in building its own deterrence framework. European states are emulating this approach, too.
Parties from the political left around the world, particularly Australia’s Labor Party, are a step ahead of the Biden administration’s eagerness to appear tough on asylum seekers and migrants. They too hoped to neutralize and outflank the populist right by embracing restrictive asylum policies and rhetoric. Eight years ago this week, Labor’s then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had won the 2007 election with a platform calling for more humane refugee policies, famously backflipped on the issue, reintroducing offshore processing and pledging that “any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.” Labor was voted out at the next election.
Now, listen to Vice President Kamala Harris, on her June 2020 trip to Guatemala, telling asylum-seekers “do not come.” As with Australia’s Labor Party, the Biden administration is coupling its anti-asylum rhetoric with language insisting it is providing humanitarian aid, security, and development assistance to Haiti and Central America. Yet, in both the United States and Australia, aid often includes the design, planning, and funding of programs to deter and prevent asylum-seekers from leaving.
The Social Democrat-led government in Denmark recently passed legislation allowing the government to relocate people seeking asylum to third countries outside Europe. Danish immigration spokesman Rasmus Stoklund adopted similar hardline rhetoric, stating: “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people will stop seeking asylum in Denmark.” On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the United Kingdom’s Conservative government followed suit, introducing legislation to establish an offshore processing system modeled on Australia’s. The U.K. also explored the possibility of sharing a processing center with Denmark.
Political parties appear to be taking cues from one another, trading in ideas of restrictive policy and rhetoric. The language may be couched in humanitarian terms, but it’s hollow. Decades of deterrence policies have repeatedly failed to deter asylum-seekers from attempting to reach a place of safety. Increasingly harsh rhetoric has ushered in increasingly inhumane and unsustainable policies – something both the United States and Australia know well, having resorted to “refugee laundering” to reduce the number of refugees caught in intractable offshore processing situations on Guantanamo Bay and Nauru.
In Australia, the rhetoric has sparked farcical scenarios where the Labor Party has effectively traded policy positions with the conservative government. Take recent revelations that the Australian Border Force (ABF) might be unlawfully deporting asylum seekers arriving by plane. Rather than pointing out that the ABF may be violating domestic law, Labor insisted that the government had “lost control of the borders.” This prompted the conservative government to defend processing any airport asylum claims.
Australia’s political parties keep driving each other further down a spiral of deterrence. It has not stopped people from fleeing persecution or other serious harm, but it has contributed to the degradation and spread of policies that undermine the international protection regime. If Labor thought it could prioritize politics over principle, it failed there too; Labor has not won an election since 2010.
The Australian example should serve as a warning: There is no logical, progressive off-ramp from this road to short-term political gain. The Biden administration should take heed and choose a different path.